(This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Waiting for her first cookbook to be published was a time both of anticipation and doubt for pastry chef Maya-Camille Broussard, owner of Justice of the Pies, a social mission-based bakery located on Chicago’s West Side. “For any creative, there is always a bit of anxiety as you wait and see how what you created is received by others.” In her book, also called Justice of the Pies (Clarkson Potter, 2022), Broussard shares more than 85 recipes for the pies, tarts and other treats that have made her bakery a destination, such as her famous Salted Caramel Peach Pie and brandied Banana Butterscotch Pie. But the book is more than just a collection of recipes – Broussard also pays tribute to ten ‘stewards’ who strive for social justice and equity, sharing their stories through heartfelt essays along with recipes they inspired. “The stewards are people who use their work to positively impact the lives of others; I wanted to use my platform to highlight them,” says Broussard. By design, this group is diverse in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, and disability status. While the stories and recipes created in their honor were a focal point of the book, Broussard did not have them approve anything in advance of publication. “I was nervous because I had an illustration created for each steward, and I hoped that they’d like it. They did not know what I was making in honor of them – everything that I gave to the stewards was a complete surprise. I was really anxious to see what they thought of my depiction of them, and then, what they thought of the recipes I created for them. I dedicated such a large part of my book to these people; their opinions really matter to me.” Happily, it turns out that the stewards were very pleased with what she’d created in their honor – and so were readers, reviewers, and the guests at the Fireside Chats she conducted as part of her book tour.
Named in honor of her late criminal defense attorney father (who in addition to practicing law was glad to bake and eat ‘anything with a crust’), Justice of The Pies is not known only for its delectable pies, but also for its focus on social justice. The bakery is closely tied to the Chicago community and offers cooking classes to children from lower income families. The day-long workshops teach nutrition, culinary skills and creative thinking so that these children can cook and bake for themselves, as Broussard did herself when her father worked long hours at the courthouse.
And its commitment to community involvement doesn’t end here; the bakery frequently contributes to The Love Fridge, a food donation group that stocks fridges in various locations in Chicago where people can take (or leave) food without having to qualify for aid or fill out any forms.
I am building out my bakery in a blighted corridor in a neighborhood that does not see a lot of private investment. By moving my business there, I’m anchoring in the neighborhood a sustainable business.
Justice of the Pies will soon have a new location in the less affluent South Side, where Broussard grew up. “I am building out my bakery in a blighted corridor in a neighborhood that does not see a lot of private investment. By moving my business there, I’m anchoring in the neighborhood a sustainable business.” In fact, her new bakery will be in the exact location where her mother’s childhood dentist practiced – an irony that’s not lost on Broussard. But if the success of the book and bakery are any indication, the effect on the neighborhood (like Broussard’s baked goods) will be sustaining. “It’s rewarding to go into a neighborhood that has a lack of enterprising businesses in that zone; to be able to take an established and respected brand that I created somewhere else and to bring it back to the neighborhood close to where I grew up. The goal is definitely to make my permanent home on the South Side. My Mom would talk to me about the businesses that were thriving there when she was a kid, and on a Saturday morning they would get dressed up and go shopping on this corridor, and now it’s very dilapidated.”
Chef Broussard’s ability to balance unusual flavor combinations (as in her Lemon Espresso Pie) is a rare gift. Partially deaf, she has worn hearing aids since she was two years old and believes her unusually potent sense of smell (called ‘hypersomnia’ in medical terminology) comes from the lack of auditory input. And as a result of her acute sense of smell and adept use of flavor, Broussard is able to take classics to new heights with great ease. She was once served a cocktail with basil, green bell pepper and lime in it, and was captivated by the combination. “I get a lot of ideas for pies from cocktails that I drink. I’ve never had a cocktail that had green bell pepper in it, and so immediately I’m like, ‘How can I make this a pie?’ The texture was fine, but I lost the flavor of the green bell pepper, and basil was coming through strong.” Broussard is a fan of failure. “As a creative, you have to be flexible. When I think of a creative, I think of someone who exercises their creative muscles every day in the work that they do, whether it’s a dancer, or someone who plays a viola or a cello, or someone who is painting or who works in a kitchen; when you are a creative you do have to have flexibility, or you will get stuck and frustrated with the work that you are creating. That’s why painters do studies of the figures they will be painting; they are allowing themselves to be flexible in the studies they create before they move onto the masterpiece on the canvas.” In her opinion, one of the best ways to “achieve excellence” is through failure. When she failed to get the green bell pepper flavor to come through in her pie, she decided that since it wasn’t working, she would create a basil pie, leaving out the pepper entirely. But the experiment didn’t end there; after the basil pie had been a popular menu item for some time, Broussard then decided that it needed an additional element of some kind, and she added strawberries that were left over from another recipe. Her strawberry basil pie, beloved by many customers, was the result of a fortuitous encounter with a bell pepper cocktail, some failure, and some flexibility.
Broussard is also a fan of combining salty and sweet flavors, and an expert at ensuring neither dominates. “With buttercream you can add a little bit of salt in it, or you can even make the buttercream with salted butter. My favorite candy bar growing up was the Payday candy bar, because the caramel nougat was sweet, but then the peanuts were salty. My roasted brussels sprout and cherry tart is a perfect example of that – you have the caramelized onions which are sweet, but you have the brussels sprouts which have a slight bitterness to them, and a slight charring which aids in that bitterness. And then you have the cherries and the cherry vinaigrette, which are sweet – and the crust is a savory shortbread crust.” As a rule, Broussard pairs savory crusts with sweet pies and vice-versa, always focusing on the texture of the crust, which she considers to be a critical element of her pies, quiches, and tarts. She says, “Making key lime pie is not that hard. There are three ingredients: sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks and the lime juice. You have to make sure you are using the right sweetened condensed milk and you have to make sure you have enough acidity, but it’s so easy. What makes the pie, and what people say when they eat my key lime pie is, ‘It’s your crust’. I like a sweet crust is that is moist; I don’t like a dry graham cracker crust, and they’re out there.”
For any creative, there is always a bit of anxiety as you wait and see how what you created is received by others.
While the rewards of her work – a bit of justice, the joy of creative input, some profit and praise from customers – are enviable, Broussard emphatically recommends that anyone entering the industry read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2009) so that they can consider and articulate their reasons for doing so before jumping in. “Because if you don’t understand your why, then you would become disenchanted by the daily grind of being in the bakery, because it is very task driven work that is done day in and day out; you’re doing this, you’re making the same thing or an iteration of the same thing, so you have to have a ‘why’. Why are you doing this? What is the purpose that’s greater than actually just producing a product?” It’s clear that Maya-Camille Broussard has found her own purpose, and that’s to make the world a better place through social justice, one pie at a time.